Cricket frenzy grips the island

Gautam Gambhir... "You can't judge a player's form based on the way he plays Twenty20. We (the seniors) are playing ODIs after a while and we are happy with our show."-AP Gautam Gambhir... "You can't judge a player's form based on the way he plays Twenty20. We (the seniors) are playing ODIs after a while and we are happy with our show."

Skippers Dhoni, Sangakkara, Afridi and Shakib Al Hasan display a sense of camaraderie ahead of the formal trophy-unveiling ceremony. The warmth is lost for a split second as Afridi is tested with repeated queries about missing Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. He retorts, “Look, this is not a team of kids.” Dhoni guffaws and Afridi's anger dissipates. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

June 13: Chennai's Anna International Airport is a medley of pathos and hope as people leave for various countries. Coffee, conversations and the long wait for the flight-departure's final call is now a blur as passengers are all eyes on the security check area where M. S. Dhoni and other Indian players walk in. A few shake hands with the players ranging from Virender Sehwag to Zaheer Khan and whisper “all the best”. Some call their friends on speed-dial and say, “Dude, you know what, Dhoni is here!” Soon it is time to leave for Colombo.

As the minutes fly and the Sri Lankan capital flickers through the window, another cricketing tour is on cruise mode.

The five-hour drive to Dambulla — the venue of the Asia Cup — is a visual treat. Green foliage that reminds you of Kerala and multi-lingual signboards with liberal use of Tamil are pointers to the geographical and cultural ties that bind India and Sri Lanka together.

In the van, there is a brief discussion on Mani Ratnam's ‘Kannathil Muthamittal', a movie that dealt with the multiple issues of identity, roots, adoption and the ethnic crisis that had engulfed Sri Lanka in the recent past. There are no easy answers to the questions that the movie had raised then. And soon it is time to take a break at a wayside hotel. “How is our Sri Lankan tea,” asks the matron high on hospitality and kindness as overwhelmed scribes nod their heads in approval.

Dambulla is a one-horse town with its share of Buddhist monuments and on the fringes are mountains and the Amaya Lake. These are brief moments of calm before cricket frenzy grips the players, media and television crew.

June 14: The team hotel Kandalama is built into a hillock where you enter the lobby at the fifth floor and then either go down or up. The views — picture postcards of serene landscapes — are perfect for tourist brochures. The four captains — Dhoni, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi and Shakib Al Hasan — display a sense of camaraderie ahead of the formal trophy-unveiling ceremony.

The warmth is lost for a split second as Afridi is tested with repeated queries about missing Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. He retorts, “Look, this is not a team of kids.” Dhoni guffaws and Afridi's anger dissipates.

June 15: The backdrop of the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium is a romantic's delight. Looming mountains, verdant forests and a lake that runs on the western side of the stadium all add to the charm. Close to the boundary ropes are a group of male dancers in their traditional attire with long drums. They perform the Kandyan dance — one of Sri Lanka's famous art forms — and a member of the press quips, “ah, these are cheer-men!”

The local fans return happy as Sri Lanka thrives on Angelo Mathews' all-round brilliance and Lasith Malinga's quick-gun deliveries while Afridi's knock goes in vain for Pakistan.

June 16: India thumps Bangladesh and Gautam Gambhir, who set up India's facile victory with his long stint at the crease, calls for some clarity in player-appraisals. “You can't judge a player's form based on the way he plays Twenty20. We (the seniors) are playing ODIs after a while and we are happy with our show,” Gambhir says on a day when the lights faded out for a while and questions were raised about the venue's eligibility to host day-night games.

June 17: Rest day for the teams though for the players there are practice sessions to attend and a few functions to grace. It's an afternoon of hard facts and harder questions at the team hotel as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) launches a programme highlighting the need for sanitation, nutrition and access to schools for girl children in South Asia.

A UNICEF official points out the irony of people having more cell phones in South Asia than access to toilets.

Sangakkara, speaking on behalf of all the cricketers, says: “We are husbands, sons and brothers and we have an obligation to society.”

Dhoni, Afridi and Shakib extended their support to the UNICEF initiative. The ACC chief executive Syed Ashraful Huq says: “The cricketers do have a heart but the media tends to focus on what they did at a pub or on some players sending lurid text messages.” A grateful Dhoni then says, “Sir, thanks for that and for telling that we do have a heart.”

June 18: Tillakaratne Dilshan sparkles in Sri Lanka's triumph over Bangladesh on a day termed the ‘Victory Day' in Sri Lankan history. The day marks the first anniversary of the Sri Lankan army's decisive triumph over the LTTE. A chat with Upul Bandaranaiyake, an intrepid autorickshaw driver with a sense of humour — he has a ‘car park pass' pasted on the windscreen of his vehicle — reveals a nation that is slowly coming to terms with the after-effects of an internal war. “All is well now. I am 30 years old and I have never been to Jaffna and I hope to see the town in the near future now that there is peace everywhere. Sinhalese and Tamils are like brothers, my regular barber is a Tamilian and he is my friend. We don't have any problems but what happened in the past is unfortunate and I hope that development spreads to the north of this beautiful island,” says Upul.